Filmmaker John Sullivan has faced his share of obstacles in executive-producing his latest movie, “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.”
First came financing for the feature film, which recalls the barbaric practices of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell. The issue was resolved by a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign in 2014 that netted north of $2.1 million via Indiegogo.
Then a lawsuit filed by a judge depicted in the movie delayed its release, as did securing a distributor. The pro-life film is set for an Oct. 12 release on about 600 screens.
Now Mr. Sullivan and his crew are bracing for a lack of interest by the left-leaning media, which gave little coverage of Gosnell’s 2013 murder trial, where it was revealed that he likely had killed hundreds of babies born alive on his operating table.
Gosnell, now 77, was convicted of three first-degree murder charges and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Mr. Sullivan said he will weaponize any cultural biases to his movie’s benefit.
“We’ve used this judo in the past with journalists,” he said, citing the late Andrew Breitbart as inspiration. “Andrew was always thinking three steps ahead. [‘Gosnell’ co-producers] Ann [McElhinney] and Phelim [McAleer] knew him, too.
“This movie was made because the media was silent on [Gosnell’s crimes]. If the media is silent again [about the film], it’s almost a story,” the executive producer said.
Team “Gosnell” is reaching out to a large group of influencers — people who can sway opinions of potential moviegoers — to sell tickets.
A “Gosnell” letter obtained by The Washington Times offers part of the sales pitch: “We are not going to let this story be ignored anymore. Pro-Abortion zealots don’t want this story to be known because it changes people’s minds about abortion, it’s that simple and that powerful. … Hearts and minds need changing too. But DC, Hollywood, Planned Parenthood and many newsrooms across the country want to suppress this story and they are powerful and dangerous.”
Though he jokes that his film’s marketing budget is roughly the size of a Marvel movie’s catering tab, Mr. Sullivan vows to get more bang for the buck. It wouldn’t be the first time he drew a crowd without falling back on traditional marketing moves.
His 2012 feature, “2016: Obama’s America,” became the second-highest-grossing political documentary, with a $33 million U.S. box office haul. The follow-up, “America,” also scored big by documentary standards with $14 million.
Mr. Sullivan began his entertainment career by promoting concerts ranging from adult contemporary to hip-hop. The revolving genres demanded a flexible approach.
“Sometimes we’d really target radio. Sometimes we’d target television. It’s always in that context of who is my audience and how I can reach them,” he said.
The same holds true for “Gosnell,” directed by character actor Nick Searcy, one of Hollywood’s more outspoken conservatives.
Mr. Searcy, who also has a key role in “Gosnell,” is making his second outing as a director. He is recognized for his portrayals of Gen. Hoyt in the Oscar-winning fantasy “The Shape of Water” and Art Mullen in the FX network series “Justified.”
Still, marketing for “Gosnell,” given its difficult subject matter, won’t be as easy as that for a Christian film that can easily tap congregations nationwide. Mr. Sullivan said his team will need to shape the film’s themes “in a palatable way” so that people of faith can rally around it.
Mr. Sullivan knows his target audience: women 35 and older living in the cities where the film will open. Social media allows him to target that demographic with startling accuracy.
“They’re 10 times more likely to see the film if they’re served up a trailer [via social media] than what it was five years ago with banner ads,” he said.
His team, he said, will focus on the 15-mile radius around theaters showing “Gosnell.”
“We can’t do that [targeting] on TV. We can get close to it on radio,” he said of such microtargeted ads.
Even those ads have a limit, though. “We can’t change buyer behavior. We don’t have the money for that,” he said.
Bob Elder, founder and president of Collide Media Group in Franklin, Tennessee, said grass-roots marketing demands much more time than flooding the market with slick commercials. That is particularly true with leveraging influencers, said Mr. Elder, who has worked in the faith-based entertainment marketplace for nearly 30 years.
“We need time to meet with leaders and work within their schedules,” he said. “We have to consider what’s going on in their worlds.”
Social media may expedite word-of-mouth marketing, but Mr. Elder said the old-fashioned kind still carries clout, especially within religious communities.
“Those active in their faith see each other multiple times [a week] in church. … When something inspires them that is affirming their faith, they share it in their community,” he said.
Even so, grass-roots marketing can stumble for the same reasons traditional campaigns collapse.
“Sometimes it’s just the season, the congestion in the marketplace,” he said. “Other times it’s mistargeting of the audience. You may be working through ministries, but they’re not the right ministries, the passionate ones.”
Mr. Sullivan learned the hard way that some conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to unconventional film projects. Marketing gurus told him to pour the bulk of his marketing resources for his 2008 documentary, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which explored the teaching of intelligent design in schools, on its opening weekend.
That model doesn’t apply to faith-friendly titles.
“You have to market the movie for a longer period of time. You don’t have the [box office] drop with this audience like you do with other ones,” said Mr. Sullivan, noting strong second-weekend hauls for Red State-friendly films such as “God’s Not Dead” and “America.”
Filmmaker Eli Steele said movies with a pre-sold audience, such as “Gosnell“‘s pro-life constituency, needn’t ignore a broad audience.
“We must find the marketing message that taps into our greater humanity,” said Mr. Steele, whose new film, “How Jack Became Black,” explores identity politics.
Mr. Sullivan hinted at a marketing secret weapon behind “Gosnell,” one his team couldn’t have predicted four years ago when they launched the crowdfunding campaign: The potential appointment of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has folks speculating about the future of Roe v. Wade.
“We’re not naive about what’s happening with Kavanaugh,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We’re looking to embrace it in a way and have a discussion about it.”